Why did the music world embrace Tracy Chapman as if she were the new Bob Dylan? Because she writes great songs? Perhaps. Because of her rich, emotive voice? Maybe. Because she's black? Absolutely.
Why has Living Colour been compared to no less a band than Led Zeppelin when it sounds nothing like Zeppelin? Because it has a winning style of accessible heavy metal with righteous funk overtones? Possibly. Because Vernon Reid is arguably the best guitarist in rock 'n' roll? Could be. Because Living Colour's members are black? You'd better believe it.
Sure, both acts have received endless reams of newsprint full of critical acclaim. Some people would argue that color has nothing to do with those accolades. Critics jumped on the bandwagon to hail Chapman as a soft, but politically righteous, voice in a pop-music wasteland where disco teen queens were baring little but their drivel. Critics have thanked Living Colour for putting such a heavy coat of responsible make-up on heavy-metal's filth-encrusted visage. With politically and socially conscious songs like "Cult of Personality" and "Open Letter (to a Landlord)," the band has provided a refreshing alternative to the mindlessness of the Poison-Bon Jovi dung factory.
But it wasn't these attributes that won over critics and fans in droves, at least initially. It was color.
When Chapman's album was released last year, it didn't start out like a three-million seller, but more like a college-radio-type, quasi-underground sensation. When her debut hit the stores in April 1988, it was still a relatively cool thing for a small group of hep undergrounders to snap up the CD.
Then Tracy Chapman showed her face to Guilty White Liberals in America and the world over. With her album barely more than two months old, Chapman, no doubt through a major publicity finagle by her label, was invited to play at the Nelson Mandela Seventieth Birthday Tribute on June 11. Armed only with a single microphone and acoustic guitar, she faced 72,000 people in London's Wembley Stadium and flat out stole the show. Chapman sang her liberal manifesto, "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution," and a stadium and country full of Brits had to have Tracy Chapman's tape the next day. Tracy Chapman entered Billboard's British albums chart on June 25 at No. 25. The following week it leaped to No. 2, and a week later it hit the top.
Guilty White Liberal Americans also had to have a peek at Chapman before falling in love with her. MTV added her "Fast Car" video on April 20. Her album then debuted at No. 122 on Billboard's Top Pop albums chart on April 30. MTV gave Chapman another push on April 27, moving her video to active rotation, and the album took another huge jump, this time to No. 77.
When Living Colour's Vivid was released last April, sales were so bad that Epic Records' suits 'n' ties were left scratching their heads. The company, rumor had it, was considering dumping the band outright. It took until September to sell 100,000 copies after Epic released "Middle Man" to album-rock radio and the song's video to MTV. Both outlets weren't buying. Then, in October, MTV placed the more political "Cult of Personality" video in active rotation and showed much of the world, in living color, the first completely black heavy-metal band it had ever seen.
Word spread about a group of black musicians that actually dared to play music that wasn't funk, rap, soul, gospel or jazz, and in February, MTV moved "Cult of Personality" into heavy rotation. Before the month was through, Vivid had gone gold. In roughly the same time it took Living Colour to sell 100,000 copies of its album without a video, it sold 400,000 more copies with a video. And with "Cult" in heavy rotation, it took Living Colour only two more months to sell 500,000 additional copies, ensuring Vivid platinum status.
MDRVnewMDRVnewMDRVnewMDRVnew Sure, the list of artists who've relied on videos to go platinum is endless. But those acts have typically shown that their music alone just can't cut the mustard. Pick up the latest CDs by Madonna or Duran Duran if you don't believe it.
MDRVnewMDRVnewMDRVnewMDRVnew Of course, Chapman and Living Colour are supposed to be different. Guilty White Liberals claim their music is so commercially and critically viable that it doesn't matter what color they are. So why didn't Chapman or Living Colour take off until the world had seen their faces?
And let's not forget those politically correct lyrics. Guilty White Liberals are in constant need of performers who will tell them just how screwed up the world is.
Of course, a host of liberals from Bob Dylan to U2 had laid the groundwork for the type of social consciousness Chapman and Living Colour were purveying. But here was something different. The people singing about the homeless and the hungry now were black--they must know the real dope about the homeless and the hungry. Thus emerged the "authentic" voice. It's no wonder Guilty White Liberals entered musical nirvana when they heard Chapman and Living Colour. These weren't some millionaires writing songs from their mansions. These were people, by golly, who had lived the experience!
The record industry has read the eager minds of Guilty White Liberals and has played up Chapman and Living Colour for all they're worth.
When Elektra Records was faced with choosing the first single off Chapman's album, it had eleven songs from which to select. Five of them had strong sociopolitical messages, five were love songs, and one seemed to cover ground on both pieces of turf. Elektra picked "Fast Car," a song about a downtrodden woman whose streets of gold lie in an almost untouchable suburb. When it came time to pick the second single, the company firmed up Chapman's politically correct image by selecting "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution," a liberal manifesto if ever there was one.
Only after the company had molded Chapman's image as that of a protest singer did it release one of the love songs--a somewhat anonymous ballad called "Baby, Can I Hold You." New-age stations loved it, but album-rock radio gagged on it.
Living Colour bombed at the outset when its record company released "Middle Man," a vague, working-class ditty, to album-rock stations.
Then, apparently having learned its lesson, Epic put out "Cult of Personality," a wry, ironic, scathing, and, most of all, liberal dig at world leaders and the way they abuse their power. (On that scale of one to ten, it scored eleven.)
Of the nine other songs on Vivid, four are piercingly political. Five others range from quasi-political to love ballads. For the next single, Epic is planning to select, of course, one of the political ones, "Open Letter (to a Landlord)"--a moving testimony to an inner-city neighborhood that Guilty White Liberals would call "a slum."
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a black Guns n' Roses comes along? Will a band of blacks who write irresponsible, meaningless lyrics and who are fair musicians at best but write somewhat catchy, if innocuous, songs make it? Can a black band get away with glorifying the seamier side of life a la Guns n' Roses? The music business says yes, but only if--like Tone Loc, Prince, or Rick James--they're not doing it on Guilty White Liberal airwaves.
The marketing game that Elektra and Epic are playing with Chapman and Living Colour suggests that we won't be seeing a black Guns n' Roses anytime soon. Witness Elektra's choice of singles and the bomb that "Middle Man" was. No, it's clear for at least the time being that for blacks to break through the rock 'n' roll color barrier, they're going to have to be politically correct.
Conversely, George Michael, Hall and Oates, Madonna, and even Boy George, are just a few cases of pale-puss mediocrity that infest Billboard's black charts. There's no industry apartheid system preventing these moldy loaves of white bread from crossing over. (Come to think of it, though, why are there "black charts"?)
The last time blacks hit the rock 'n' roll charts with as much force as Tracy Chapman and Living Colour was way back when the Sixties were turning into the Seventies. The hippies thought it was groovy to welcome Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Billy Preston into their psychedelic world.
The hippies that grew up into tidier, Eighties-style Guilty White Liberals now make up a large segment of Chapman's audience. And youngish, hippie wanna-be Guilty White Libsters now have their very own black guitar hero in Living Colour's Vernon Reid.
To give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Guilty White Liberals should be praised for accepting Chapman and Living Colour so wholeheartedly. After all, GWLs have busted a hole in the color barrier. But upon closer inspection, it's a pinhole. And so far, the hole has been big enough to admit only two acts. Token acts, some might say.
For the color barrier to be downed completely, rock 'n' roll will have to accept--like it or not--not just the politically correct and phenomenally talented but also the politically ignorant and the mediocre. Just as it does with white acts. No matter what the Guilty White Liberals say. Progress, ironically, in this case, means that there has to be a black Huey Lewis and the News, a black Dead Milkmen, a black Replacements, and even a black Jane's Addiction. Guilty White Liberals are going to have to really wrestle with their consciences before they let anything that dangerous happen.
Guilty White Liberals are in constant need of performers who will tell them just how screwed up the world is.
The people singing about the homeless and the hungry now were black--they must know the real dope about the homeless and the hungry.
It's clear that for blacks to break through the rock 'n' roll color barrier, they're going to have to be politically correct.